By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA Sat Dec 14, 2013 12:22pm EST
(Reuters) – More than 5,000 people have been evacuated from flood-damaged homes in northern Gaza and at least one person killed in what the United Nations called “a disaster area”.
The flooding, caused by four days of torrential rain, was so severe that many homes could only be accessed by rowing boat with water two meters (more than six feet) deep in some places.
“Large swathes of northern Gaza are a disaster area with water as far as the eye can see,” the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) that administers refugee camps in the Palestinian territory, said in a statement on Saturday.
Severe weather in the form of heavy snowfall also paralyzed Palestinian cities such as Hebron in the occupied West Bank, as well as Jerusalem and parts of Israel’s northern Galilee.
In Gaza, many people were trapped inside homes inundated by rising waters. A 22-year-old Palestinian man died from smoke inhalation on Saturday after lighting a fire to warm his home, a government spokesman said.
The Gaza health ministry said 100 other people had been hurt as flood waters damaged poorly built homes in the coastal territory. Among those injured were people who had been hit by objects falling from inundated buildings or had been in car accidents on flooded roads.
Chris Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman, said areas near a refugee camp in northern Gaza “have become a massive lake with two-meter-high waters engulfing homes and stranding thousands.”
Thousands of agency workers were evacuating stranded Palestinians to U.N. shelters, Gunness said.
Gaza’s Hamas government said 5,246 people in all had been evacuated to schools and other centers used as temporary shelters in the past four days.
Gaza’s 1.8 million people have also endured daily blackouts of around 12 hours since the territory’s lone power plant was switched off last month due to a fuel shortage.
One of the most densely populated tracts on earth, Gaza is home to mostly impoverished refugees and their descendants.
The territory lacks much basic civil infrastructure and lives under an Egyptian-Israeli blockade meant to cut off arms flows, but which also curbs imports of fuel, building supplies and basic goods.
SNOWFALL BLANKETS ISRAEL, WEST BANK
Israel opened a main crossing with Gaza on Friday to allow in fuel supplies and four water pumps to help relieve flood damage.
In the West Bank, Hebron saw its heaviest snowfall in decades, about a meter deep. Falling tree branches caused electricity cuts, and left mountain roads impassable. Schools and government offices were to remain shut there and in the city of Ramallah on Sunday, officials said.
The Israeli military sent armored personnel carriers to sweep through snowbound roads outside Jerusalem, where more than 50 centimeters of snow has fallen in a rare heavy downfall.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered officials to work fast to reopen traffic arteries clogged by snow and shut since Thursday.
Authorities eased a travel ban for the Jewish Sabbath to run trains to Tel Aviv to relieve a transport backlog caused by blocked highways.
Tens of thousands of Israelis had electric power knocked out by snow in the Jerusalem area and northern Galilee.
The bodies of two Israeli men in their 20s washed away by a desert flash flood were found on Saturday. In other storm casualties, a man trying to fix a roof fell and died in the Tel Aviv area as well as a toddler killed by a heater fire.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafat and Noah Browning in Ramallah; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem Editing by Rosalind Russell)